April 7, 2014

According to a new study that has been doing the rounds in the news, the traditional 5-a-day doesn’t really cut it and we should be eating 7 portions of fruit or veg every day. What’s more, the majority of those portions should be vegetables rather than fruit. For a non-vegetable eating person like me, this certainly seems like a lot. But, the health and lifestyle benefits are scientifically proven, and we should all listen more to solid science. Some of the benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables are:

  • Lowering the risk over obesity/type 2 diabetes as vegetables are filling and not high in calories
  • Lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases and some cancer
  • Keep you healthy and energised with vital vitamins and nutrients you need

I certainly want to get on board with each of these benefits. But, I have a “pragmatic” approach to food - if it is quick, and tasty, that’s what I tend to go for. And, I know many people are in the same boat with me. So, we will have to devise some kinds of strategies to get us eating more healthily - and being more healthy.

##Step 1: Identify some vegetables that you love

Hopefully, this shouldn’t be too hard. Vegetables are not all hateful. There are the lovely crunchy carrots we can eat as a snack, or tomatoes and onions, which form the basis of so many types of sauce or stew you might like to make. There is spinach, which is lovely with garlic and with eggs. Or cabbage, which is the national food of the Germans (in the form of sauerkraut), and for good reason. The Japanese also eat a lot of cabbage in the form of okonomiyaki, when they’re not eating edamame or pickled ginger. And, there are many more. Really, this step of identifying what you like is vital to a sensible nutritional plan - as eating things you don’t like everyday is unrealistic and, frankly unpleasant.

##Step 2: Add a little fruit to your breakfast

Yes, you could go to town with an eggs florentine or even just put together a omelette with some spinach, but that just somehow never seems to happen in the morning. So, even if you are dashing straight out of the door and having a cereal bar on the way to work (I prefer a protein shake, myself) you can augment it with at least a piece of fruit.

##Step 3: Avoid buying lunch in a box

Most of the common foods sold as convenience lunches have remarkably little vegetable content. Maybe you might find a little lettuce in a wrap, or if you’re lucky perhaps some carrot, but that tends to be about it. If you do go for one of the salads, you’ll probably be hungry and looking for anything to scoff down come mid-afternoon (I wonder, are these salads targeted solely at small women and desperate dieters?). If you spend a little more on lunch you might have more luck, but the best bet is to prepare your own food wherever possible.

##Step 4: Add some side vegetables to each meal

A typical main portion of a dish will tend to have around one portion of vegetables (tomato/onion/garlic etc..). For example, in a spaghetti bolognese you have some meat, some tomato in the sauce, and the spaghetti. So, with two main meals a day, that is not going to get you close enough to the target. You can add some green beans, carrots, or a side salad depending on how you feel, and depending on the meal. The more the better - feel liberated to experiment with swedes, radishes, asparagus and whatever weird and wonderful things you can think of.

##Step 5: Replace common staples with pulses or beans

The bulk of a meal which typically comes in the form of bread, pasta, rice, or potatoes can sometimes be replaced, by beans or pulses. These are more healthy, and are allowed to contribute as only one of your seven-a-day. Where this replacement doesn’t really work, for example with a chilli - my brother’s excellent idea was to substitute with sweet potato instead. This also may count as just one of your seven-a-day.

##Step 6: Take a healthy snack instead of crisps or chocolate bars

After following the previous steps, the instinct to eat inbetween meals should be weakening. Vegetables are made up of complex carbohydrates that take some time to be converted into sugars, and so energy is released for hours after you eat. Therefore, mid-afternoon hunger pangs foods like chocolate bars or crisps which sometimes seem satisfying (for about 10 minutes) should become a little rarer. But, not necessarily non-existant. So, instead of highly processed sugary foods, take something more refreshing such as an apple, or orange or some carrot sticks.

For hunger pangs that are beginning to bite, you can ward them off with more substantial like a trail mix. What I find really helps with trail mix is to make your own, including only those types of nuts that you actually want to eat. There are many filler foods that are added into pre-made mixes which aren’t noticeably unpleasant, but they do make your food experience rather more mundane than it should be. For example, in almost all commercial nut mixes they add in walnuts and brasil nuts which I don’t like, and which put me off everything else in the mix by their overwhelming boringness.

##Step 7: Mix things up - Colour is good…more colour is better

The natural thing to go for in a diet is variety. Its good to try different things: different flavours, different textures, different combinations. It stops you getting bored. Moreover, I believe that the body naturally craves for a variety of food, so that we consume all the different types of nutrients we need. We get iron from spinach, potassium from bananas, vitamin C from oranges. And the medical advice extends this idea. Since food with different colours contain different types of vitamins, they say that to improve our health, we should try to eat foods of all different types and different colours. This is a good philosophy - of variety, trying new things, of mix-and-match.

And … Enjoy!

Really, its as simple as that. In general, the principle of making substitutions is an excellent one. You need to be realistic and to realise what it is that you actually want, rather than trying to deprive yourself. I’ve been following this regime for around a week now, and whilst it is too little time to notice any major changes, I have been enjoying my food so far.

Everyone has cravings for things sometimes, and it is how we direct those cravings, not their mere presence, that produces either a good or a bad outcome. And since we all want to be healthy and energetic, I think it is always worth trying to give yourself a little nudge to make you daily decisions just a little bit better.